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Published: Saturday, 10/27/2012

Suit in death of inmate to proceed


The civil lawsuit filed by relatives of a Lucas County jail inmate whose in-custody death in 2004 led to criminal charges against the sheriff and convictions of two of his staff will resume next week in U.S. District Court in Toledo.

The family of Carlton Benton asked the court in September to lift the stay that was imposed in the wrongful-death litigation while the criminal case was pending. With an opinion released Friday, Magistrate Judge Vernelis Armstrong granted that request and scheduled a status conference for next Friday.

Mr. Benton, 24, was in jail in early 2004 accused of two counts of aggravated murder, charges for which he faced the death penalty if convicted.

While awaiting trial, Mr. Benton was found unresponsive in his cell, and he later died.

The family’s civil lawsuit, filed initially in 2008, alleges that Mr. Benton’s death was the result of sheriff's employees having “repeatedly physically assaulted him in 2004.”

After the case was filed, federal authorities indicted Sheriff James Telb, Capt. Robert McBroom, and former employees John Gray and Jay Schmeltz on criminal charges related to the death. Sheriff Telb and Captain McBroom were acquitted in December, 2010, after a jury trial. Gray and Schmeltz were found guilty and sentenced to prison time.

The men’s convictions and sentences have been upheld by the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

In her ruling, Judge Armstrong noted that the stay was ordered so that Gray and Schmeltz would not be “forced to choose between preserving the privilege against self-incrimination and/or losing a civil suit during the pendency of their criminal appeal.”

She stated that although the criminal case can still be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the civil case could proceed fairly in federal court.

“Special efforts can be made to accommodate the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and protect counsel against ineffective assistance claims under the Sixth Amendment,” the opinion stated. “Upon proper application to the Court, any potential prejudicial statements can be avoided by a protective order that places restrictions and/or conditions upon access to certain criminal discovery.”

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